Once, Ava Cooper came to the Kellys’ house, carrying a cake tin. She was wearing the red blouse Tessa had been wearing on the day they moved in, the one Carla had spied on the riverbank the night she’d stumbled upon the lovers. Mrs. Kelly went out to meet Mrs. Cooper in the driveway. Carla watched through the window for a while, then she got into bed. She had a sinking, sick feeling. It was the red blouse. She hadn’t known they shared clothes. She started to feel confused about what she had seen that night. Her mother knocked on her door, then opened it.
“Your friends sent you something.”
Carla sat up. Her mother was holding a red velvet cake.
“She said it was an Apology Cake.”
“I don’t want it,” Carla said.
When school started, Carla felt anxious. She started biting her nails. She didn’t know what she would say if Tessa tried to sit with her and Madeline and Jennifer at lunch. Maybe Tessa would accuse her of being a liar. Well, then, she’d just say Tessa was a slut, even though she now knew it wasn’t true. But Tessa didn’t show up on the first day of school. Later that week, Carla went past their house. The station wagon wasn’t there. The shades were drawn.
“They’ve moved,” her father told her when she asked if he knew what had happened to the Coopers. “The mother came and got the car serviced before they left. They went to California.”
Carla thought about them often, how the ride to California must have taken days, through wheat fields, across the desert. Once she got a cookbook and tried to make a red velvet cake, but it was a disaster, all tilted and mushy, and a single bite turned her mouth red. She worried that she was cursed, that her mouth would stay red forever. But it was just the red dye in the recipe. It washed away after she drank some cold water. When the following summer Johnny was killed in a motorcycle crash, Carla was the one who had to clean out his room. Her mother was too distraught. Her father couldn’t bring himself to go over to the house where Johnny had lived since the falling-out in their family. A young man let Carla into the house. She was surprised to see how small her brother’s room was and how neatly he’d kept it. Searching through his bureau she found a packet of letters addressed to Ava Cooper that had been returned to him. ADDRESSEE UNKNOWN had been stamped on the envelopes. She’d heard that Ava had opened a restaurant in San Francisco, that people stood on line on Saturday nights, hoping to get in. She thought her brother had the address right, on Montgomery Street, but that the Coopers most likely didn’t want anything that had been mailed from Blackwell and made sure it was sent right back. They probably never even thought about the Eel River anymore, the way the sunlight fell across the water, the fact that it was one of the wonders of Massachusetts.
THE MOTT BROTHERS WERE IN TROUBLE from the time they could crawl. Their mother, Helen, had grown up in Hartford, Connecticut. She was a sheltered woman, educated at private schools, known for her sweet temper and lovely singing voice. She’d been engaged to a medical student, but when Leo Mott came tearing through Hartford on a lark with some of his buddies one summer night, Helen fell for him on the spot and moved to Blackwell. She appeared to settle easily into small-town life. But something happened to her during her pregnancy. She seemed unsettled. She kept to herself and didn’t return phone calls. People saw her wandering through town, as if she were lost. One day she started off at a brisk pace as if she could walk her way out of Blackwell and a pregnancy that had caused her to become enormous, a stranger to herself. She might have made it all the way back to Hartford if she hadn’t come face-to-face with a bear on Route 17.
Helen closed her eyes and waited to die. She said a silent farewell to her children-to-be who might never be born and to her husband and to everyone else on earth. She made a vow that if she did happen to survive, if some miracle occurred even though she hardly deserved such good fortune, she would never again complain about Blackwell. When she opened her eyes, the bear was gone, but there was his footprint, huge as could be. Helen ran home, then drove back to the site, having stopped at the hardware store for a sack of plaster of paris and a thermos she hurriedly filled with water so she could set the footprint and bring it home. That way people would believe her.
Every time the Mott boys got into trouble, people said the twins’ fearless nature had been formed during that ill-fated meeting. The boys were named Jesse and Frank before their mother understood that these had also been the names of the notorious James brothers. Frank was dark and intense. Jesse was blond, always the favorite in town. His appearance was so angelic that his antics were usually overlooked. He stole his father’s car at the age of thirteen and drove it into Dead Man’s Pond, but no charges were brought. He burned down the bookstore, but it was declared to be an accident; he was merely setting off a cherry bomb on the Fourth of July, and insurance paid for the rebuilding. Jesse usually got off scot-free, leaving his brother behind to clean up the mess, which Frank did willingly because of his bond with his twin. He insisted that he was the one who’d forgotten to test the brakes of his dad’s Chevy and swore he’d bought the cherry bomb. For as long as they’d lived, the brothers had never spent a day apart.